Over the past several months, I’ve had the fantastic opportunity to see quite a few performers in concert: Dave Matthews Band, Lord Heron, and The Head & The Heart; Boys II Men, 98 Degrees, Sir Mix-A-Lot, and New Kids on the Block; Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake; Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar; Typhoon; and, um, Justin Timberlake—again. What can I say? I’m a fan.
I feel privileged to have had some incredible musical experiences at these shows—and some really odd experiences as well. As you can imagine, some of these celebrities put on a show that plays into their eccentricities (Kanye West) or some extreme love of ripping off their shirts (98 Degrees and New Kids on the Block). They are all impressive performers, but sometimes the show has a lot less to do with the music and much more about something bigger: their ethos. Their ethos is related to their music, but it is something more—it is an amalgam of their personality and their talent and the way we have received them and categorized them into our culture.
I think about the ethos of a thing a lot. I think ethos is far more powerful than we think — the idea around a thing, around a person, sometimes becomes bigger than that thing or person. And it often takes on a life of its own outside any one person’s control. When I see someone like Kanye wearing a diamond-encrusted mask atop a man-made iceberg that stands far above the audience (that happened), I wonder where he ends and where our idea of him begins—and what it is exactly I’m looking at. Is he being weird because he’s really that weird, or because we want him to be that weird, or because we have made him that weird? When New Kids On The Block rip off their tanktops to lean into the audience with sweaty abs—are they being themselves, or are they being what they think we want them to be?
Justin Bieber was arrested the week I’m writing this, and I can’t help but remember the people who first made jokes on late-night television five years ago about the inevitable drunken, misguided behavior of what was at the time a clean-cut, swoopy-haired fourteen-year-old singing innocent songs about first love. Would he be doing this if we hadn’t been condemning him to this ethos since the second he appeared on our YouTube screens? It seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy, something spoken into the being of another person enough times that it became true.
Or maybe he’s just being a stupid nineteen year old, like I was.
Who knows. Communities define people, define institutions—nothing exists in a vacuum. We all carry the labels of others; we carry an ethos that others have helped define. I think this is why a constant re-evaluation of the stories we are telling others and ourselves about identity are vital. I hope we are careful about the stories we are claiming of ourselves and others—and I hope we are constantly challenging that ethos when it feels untrue. I think this is one of the amazing things that Christ’s presence in the world does—it breaks down the labels and ways of being that others have forced on us. I hope you experience that freedom if you haven’t already. And I hope you have the grace to let others experience it—even someone that wrote “Baby, Baby, Baby” or wears a diamond mask.